For Rory McIlroy, playing golf has been the easiest part of a truly tumultuous 2022. Being the standard bearer for the PGA Tour in its battle with LIV Golf has been the challenge. That’s why the Northern Irishman looked content at East Lake Golf Club, where he began the Tour Championship with a triple-bogey 7 on the first hole and ended it with a third career FedEx Cup on the 72nd.
“Golf has been the escape for me over the past few weeks,” McIlroy said after overcoming a six-shot final-round deficit to beat Scottie Scheffler and Sungjae Im by a stroke to become the first three-time winner of the tour’s season-long title. “When I get inside the ropes, no one can get to me.”
The PGA Tour was gifted a most appropriate champion ahead of a week in which the Saudi-backed circuit is expected to announce it has poached at least five more tour players as new recruits. McIlroy has been the tour’s most vocal public supporter and a most industrious saviour behind closed doors. If any one of the 29 players in the field at East Lake deserved a $US18 million FedEx Cup bonus, it was McIlroy.
For his 22nd PGA Tour victory, McIlroy shot a final-round 66 to finish at 21-under par. His final-round partner, Scheffler, who made four birdies in six holes while wrapping up his weather-delayed third round early on Sunday morning, struggled to find any rhythm in the afternoon, shooting a three-over 73 to share second with Im (66).
“In some ways it’s fitting I was able to get this done today to round off a year that has been very, very challenging and different,” McIlroy said.
He prematurely called LIV Golf dead in the water in February. But as the rival tour did get off the ground, signing high-profile players like Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeCheambeau, McIlroy has repeatedly come to the defence of the PGA Tour in words and actions.
The same week LIV Golf held its debut event outside London, McIlroy won the RBC Canadian Open in a thriller against Justin Thomas, shooting a closing 61.
Amid reports that LIV was set to sign world No.2 and Open Champion Cameron Smith after the Tour Championship, McIlroy, along with Tiger Woods, rallied the tour’s top guys in a players-only meeting that spelled out a future blueprint for the PGA Tour that less than a week later had become a reality. The tour’s top players will play in the same events, and more of them, starting in 2023, while being rewarded for their efforts.
“Every chance I get, I’m trying to defend what I feel is the best place to play elite professional golf in the world,” McIlroy said. “If you believe in something, you have to speak up and I believe very strongly about this. I really do. I hate what it’s doing to the game of golf.”
It’s amazing to think how well McIlroy has done on the course in during the 2021-2022 season considering all the distractions off it. Three wins, 10 top-10s, a PGA Tour-low 68.67 season scoring average.
True, his Major championship drought continued. But it was not for a lack of trying. A backdoor second at the Masters (thanks to a closing 64) was followed by eighth place at the PGA and a T-5 at the US Open. They all stung some, but not quite like what happened at the Open Championship at St Andrews.
At the Home of Golf, McIlroy faced the suffocating pressure of being the crowd favourite trying to win golf’s oldest Major championship. McIlroy still got himself into a share of the 54-hole lead with Viktor Hovland, but faded to third place, his putter betraying him once more.
Quite likely, McIlroy would trade every one of the $18 million in FedEx Cup earnings for that claret jug, but admitted it did provide consolation.
“St Andrews was really hard for me,” he said. “It’s still a tough one to get over. This softens the blow a little bit. It doesn’t make it that much easier to get over, but it’s great to end the season on a high note like this. I went up against the best player in the world today and I took him down, and that’s got to mean something.”
The best player in the world, Scheffler, was staring down a chance to cap a $US32 million season had he won the FedEx Cup. He pocketed $5.75 million for his share of second, to go with the $14 million he amassed from four PGA Tour titles this year, which included the Masters.
That too provides some consolation, although not so much on Sunday night in Atlanta.
“I don’t play golf for money. I play to win tournaments and to have fun,” Scheffler said. “Today, the money definitely didn’t creep into my mind. I wanted to win the season-long title. I wasn’t playing my best today, [but] I’m proud of how I fought.”
McIlroy has certainly earned a rest after the summer of discontent, but it won’t be for long. “I have a whopping one week off coming up and then I go to Europe for three out of four weeks,” joked McIlroy, who will play the DP World Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, in England and head back to St Andrews for the Alfred Dunhill Links. “As much as I’m a willing participant in all of this, I sometimes do need to reboot myself for the sake of my golf game.”
Maybe, McIlroy will get an offseason after his European events. And maybe after that, professional golf will be more stable in 2023.
“Yeah, that would be lovely,” McIlroy said.
For now, what was lovely was the message he sent at East Lake. Rory McIlroy will lead by example.